It may seem unlikely in an affluent county like Oxfordshire, but fifteen areas of the city of Oxford are among the 20% most deprived wards in England. Furthermore, one in four of Oxford’s children live below the poverty line (and this is closer to one third in some areas).
One consequence of poverty is a nutritionally inadequate diet - higher percentage of income is spent on food, with less choice from a restricted range of foods, and limited consumption of fruit and vegetables. ‘Food Poverty’ affects an estimated four million people across the UK. At present, over 500,000 people rely on food aid such as food parcels and food banks for part or all of their diet, and the use of food banks has risen sharply in the last few years.
Good Food Oxford set out to understand food poverty in Oxford, giving voice to residents in two of Oxford’s most deprived wards: Barton and Rose Hill. We interviewed 57 residents, as well as 12 professionals working in Oxford’s regeneration neighbourhoods, and asked them about difficulties related to food in the home, the relevance of GFO’s core messages, and community activities that could help to relieve the difficulties.
“Food is so expensive, very, very expensive, especially if you want to live a healthy life”
Price, value, and money available to purchase food were widely cited by interviewees as a barrier to eating a healthy diet, corroborating findings from the 2007 Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey. One of the downsides to the need to be cost-conscious is the limited dietary diversity it necessarily entails: buying in bulk means buying fewer varieties, and avoiding waste discourages experimentation with new foods in case they are rejected by household members.
Previous studies have shown that food shops are often sparse in low-income neighbourhoods, and those that exist often stock limited fresh fruit and veg, and at higher prices. A Barton resident observed that the local store sold “old, tired vegetables and a bit of fresh meat, it’s mainly tins and packets”. Access to better-stocked food retailers was an issue primarily for older residents in Barton and Rose Hill, who found the larger supermarkets “a bit long of a walk for most of us”.
The high cost of housing in Oxford (prices ten times earnings!), and a highly polarised job market with few intermediary jobs that could help lift individuals out of poverty, exacerbate already difficult conditions for those in low-income areas. These are big issues that require structural and institutionalised changes in and beyond the city.
But some changes can happen at an individual level.
“If I could find time, I would like to learn to cook.”
While many of the people we interviewed make home-cooked meals and use fresh ingredients as much as they can, there was considerable interest in improving knowledge of food and cooking skills and learning new recipes as a way to broaden their repertoires. Consistent demand for training - like the HENRY course offered at Rose Hill Children’s Centre, geared towards new parents and infant nutrition - is evidence of this interest.
Of course, food poverty is not a simple equation of cost + access + knowledge. We found a number of other drivers underlying food poverty and poor diet, including poor physical or mental health, living arrangements, and lack of access to kitchen facilities.
Read the full report and related content:
Crunching Numbers: A Snapshot of Oxford's Food System - R. Friedman, Good Food Oxford Blog
Feeding the Gaps: Food Poverty and Food Surplus Redistribution in Oxford - D. Lalor, report commissioned by the Community Action Groups project.
Evaluating the Contribution of Fresh Food Redistribution Organisations to the Environmental Sustainability of Food Systems: A Study of the Oxford Food Bank - A. Bissett, MSc Dissertation
Free Cheese Only Comes in Mousetraps: Exploring Food Bank Use in the UK - M. Ellis-Petersen, BSc Dissertation